A previous blog post discussed the process of appealing a criminal conviction or sentence. If the trial court error involved the defendant’s constitutional rights, the conviction would be subject to automatic reversal. Otherwise, a reversal will only be granted to defendants who can show that a harmful error occurred which affected their substantial rights. Harmless errors, ones that did not contribute to the guilty verdict, will not justify a reversal.
There are four main grounds for appeal based on harmful errors – the lower court made a plain error, there is insufficient weight of evidence, defendant had ineffective assistance of counsel and there was an abuse of discretion. Plain errors or defects form the basis for a successful appeal when there was an error or defect affecting the defendant’s substantial rights which was not pointed out at trial. Plain error often occurs when judges miscalculate sentences; in that situation, the case would be returned to the trial court for re-sentencing.
A successful appeal based on insufficient weight of evidence is more difficult to achieve because trial courts are in a better position to determine the facts and assess the weight of the evidence than appellate courts. Trial courts typically review trial transcripts but do not hear testimony, see presentations of evidence or hear opening and closing statements. Therefore, appellate courts will generally defer to trial courts’ decisions regarding the weight of the evidence.
Ineffective assistance of counsel refers to a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to adequate representation and a fair trial. Generally, courts will hold that there was ineffective assistance of counsel if they determine that the lawyer’s conduct undermined the judicial process to such an extent that the trial court may not have produced a just result.
Abuse of discretion refers to the judge’s rulings. For example, rulings on sentencing in cases involving felonies, which can include fines, imprisonment or both. If the appellate court judge finds that the trial court judge abused his or her discretion and made a clearly unreasonable, erroneous or arbitrary and unsupported ruling, the case may be reversed. Federal crimes are subject to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines which were developed to reduce such abuse of discretion.